vrijdag 7 februari 2014

Bystanders do play a role in conflicts ...

A few days ago I read Thomas Friedman's article on the Middle East and Kerry's approach (Why Kerry is scary) to come to a solution for the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And somehow it struck me. Normally, I read his articles and blogs with interest. This time was different. It did not sitw well with me. So I reread it, and wondered what it was that struck me. 

Thomas Friedman writes about whether Israel has become so powerful that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible. An interesting question, although the mid term demographic development goes against the power of Israel. In the period Israel withdrew from the Gaza, I spent half a year sabbatical in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I worked in the field of conflict resolution and peace building. Working for IPCRI I spent time with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists trying to find common ground and developing scenarios. The summary Thomas Friedman gives on the issues at stake in the conflict, are pretty much the issues that everybody involved agrees upon. Maybe all but the issues of the settlements. It was understood that there was a distinction between the three big settlement blocks directly outside of the green line (like Maale Adumim, Ariel and Modiin Ilit) and numerous other ones. The first ones were so big, it was understood that they would probably be part of land swaps, while the other ones should be dismantled. Also on the right of return of the Palestinian people, the understanding was that that was mainly a part of the negotiation tactic. So, on the whole, the content of the agreement did not cause the most heated debates. It was the way forward. How to move on both sides, without losing support. Who to include, what party should make the first move and when was the best timing? Who are the parties to rely on? It was all these kinds of questions on the How and Who of the process that made it so difficult. We can only hope that Kerry is taking these aspects into account, instead of a renewed proposal on the content of how the final situation should look like.

Getting back to Thomas Friedman's article, it is not so much the account of the issues at stake that struck me. It was more the position Friedman choose, as if one can freely sit on the bench and watch the parties argue. This reminded me of the BBC and CNN during the Gaza disengagement. Every morning I would watch the tv before heading of to a meeting with peace activists. From twelve different positions, CNN and BBC would report what was going on in Gaza. From the screen it looked like there was a lot of tension and a lot of places with heated conflicts. The suggestion was that it was dangerous to be there, with big chances of escalation. One morning when the Israeli army had just started their disengagement, I arrived at a workshop with both Israeli and Palestinians. Everybody was on the phone with relatives and friends to hear the latest news from Gaza. Bottom line was that it was pretty quiet with just here and there a bit of tension. Much less than expected. Two perspectives, one from the tv, the other from contacts on the ground with local people. Depending on which perspective you would choose, there would be more or less room to move, more or less hope for a solution.

It made me think of William Ury's experiences in peace negotiations that he spoke about at TED. He argues that the third side, us, the surrounding community, very often takes the role of bystanders, while we are or can be a very important party to tempt the other two parties to move towards each other. Acting as a bystander is not a neutral choice. That was what did not feel good about Friedmans article: the position of bystander or commentator without realizing that the actual role you play does effect the conflict.
Just standing by, may well make you partly responsible for the stalemate the parties are stuck in. Maybe even making it harder to move. That does not make it easy. It is a simple statement, but often so hard to carry out. Yet, I feel it is somewhere in this area: we should stop to sit back and just have an opinion, and start to take responsibility for the solution and look for ways to actively facilitate parties to make it easier to make a move towards a solution. We can make the difference, not just them.

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